(image c/o www.coolmath.com)
I don’t know if you have managed to catch the BBC4 programme the Secret Life of Chaos, fronted by Jim Al-Khalili, a lecturer from my alma mater…if you didn’t you missed a treat. A truly thought provoking piece of TV and one that makes you question everything you know.
For me, this programme had the appeal that sci fi had as a teenager. And when you get down to how to find order in chaos and fractals, then it’s pushing all the right buttons to get your mind buzzing. Al-Khalili makes great use of Mandelbrot pictures to explain chaos and self-replication. And the pictures are truly incredible – he noted that Mandelbrot’s fractals had been called the “thumbprint of God” because of their infinite complexity, but zooming into each piece of the Mandelbrot patterns to find yet more tiny versions is amazing. You can make you own with the www.coolmath.com fractal generator, of course…
And that chaos, far from being random, is a pattern repeated again and again throughout nature. The programme illustrated this with examples of all sizes, from coastal erosion to bird flight to the construction of our own lungs.
Al-Khalili said that can use chaos theory therefore to show that complex can be the result of simple – branching over many generations leads to greater and greater complexity.
This was presented as though it was thought to be a revolutionary idea.
Actually anyone in a bureaucratic office environment knows that must be the case – a simple instruction from on high to do X results in a number of people needing to talk to other people , making arrangements, using different pieces of technology, attempting to balance different things that are affected by that simple command to “make it so”. Of course it is just possible that our brains have evoled in such a way as to make the simple complicated…
To illustrate that evolution is the tool that best demonstrates this repetitive pattern and branching, the programme used the model of computers that evolve their own programming. The computer was programmed to get some virtual robot legs to get up and walk and then move a body. If the effort succeeded that model was allowed to “breed” giving birth to the next generation of model and within 5 generations there was a notable improvement in getting the robot walking, but then left to run the programme enabled many amazing things to happen, illustrated with beautifully programmed robot bodies wrestling and slamming into walls etc.
The interesting thing here was that the computer itself programmed amazing things that no human programmer would have done. But to me that was not the only interesting thing. The analogy made was that this is evolution in action, the random mutations that give advantage leading to improved versions (with no value judgement of what improvement means). But that’s not the case, is it?
The programme was set up with a purpose (to see what a computer could do with self-evolving programming), the computer was given a set of simple but clear instructions by a human programmer (find which models are successful in achieving an aim and when you find them, breed them to create the next generation to model evolution). It was not, in the words of Bill Bryson “nothing, which exploded”, the programme was programmed into the computer like a message in its DNA. So basically it was all set in train by an intelligent designer. Oh.
Now you know I’m no creationist – I understand that the Bible is a document formed of the writings of many different individuals over a long span of history but with a common unifying theme and “God breathed” message.
I have no problem with God so loving the world that he set it to run and develop through evolution and on discovering that free will meant sometimes his creations deliberately choosing imperfectly, showing that although we’ve corrupted what he’s intended for us but that he loves us anyway and if we ask him wholeheartedly to, the price of our wrongdoing is paid and he forgives us. But I’ve no truck with the sort of creator Terry Pratchett sketches out, adjusting the wings of insects or giving elephants wheels.
Does chaos theory and fractal maths mean there’s no room for God the programmer?
More of this in a minute.
But before I get too complicated myself, there’s a few things that this truly interesting programme raised for me that I’d like to put out for further thought and discussion:
1) ultimately the question of where we come from has one of two answers: something must either come from something (God made it, ex deus), or from nothing (it just happened, ex nihilo). Knowing the tools by which the changes happen doesn’t affect the need to know and understand this;
2) I’m still not clear, no matter what the level of complexity that can arise from the very simple, how life can come from this self-replicating process. Despite Frankenstein being so incorporated into our outlook that some forget it’s fiction, and despite the attempts to create life in a test tube (though not with the gases that were around at the time that life is thought to have started) we still have not managed to create life from scratch and nothing in this programme showed how inanimate dust from an explosion went from inanimate to self-replicating. To me, know that complexity comes from simplicity does not change this question of how life comes to exist;
3) As a knockdown “proof” of evolution as the only answer to the “how” question, as set out above I’m not sure what the “evolving computer programme” actually shows… something that’s come from the evolutionary process uses it’s mind to create a computer that responds to programming by evolving it?
4) then there’s the problem, as always, of Jesus.
And it comes down to this – either he did what we think he did (and I’ve gone into this at length in other posts), or he didn’t.
If he didn’t, then fair enough, let’s go with the fractal mathematics and the science of patterns explains chaos and the purpose of life is to self-replicate with meaningless mutation occasionally lending advantage. I personally find this bleak, depressing and unconvincing. It means the only answer to “why” is “it doesn’t matter, it’s just because”, that the genes are in control and that our brains have evolved to ask “why” without even a genetic advantage through learning. And I know bleak doesn’t mean wrong just because it’s not a nice thing – I just wonder how people that seriously believe that this is thecase get out of bed in the morning…
But if Jesus did what Christians think he did, then we’ve a responsibility to look at what he said and did, to understand that there is a personal and loving God who responds to prayer but nevertheless is unwilling to catch every sparrow or aeroplane.
This is not a comfortable concept for some people – for example Eddie Izzard contends that God can’t exist because otherwise he’d just flicked off Hitler’s head. But Christians say that God loves us and gives us choices – we say that he relies on human agents to challenge evil because otherwise we’d be puppets so the God that we worship expects us to come up with ways of overcoming evil without him intervening as directly as he had to in the past. I like the threading a needle analogy that Lee Strobel tells to explain this point (the daughter of an interviewee wanted to learn to sew, but she keep stabbing herself in the finger while trying to thread a needle, but he resists the urge to just take over and do it for her – she needs to learn to do it herself and when she does the triumph and pride in her newfound ability is worth so much more, and of course equips her with a new life skill).
It’s the mad, bad or God dilemma. Again.
But while fractals help us explain chaos (and also look pretty) this reductionist approach to the complex world around us doesn’t help us think about this so well documented, so hugely interpreted event, and what is pretty much THE decision that needs to be come to in life.
I guess what it’s saying is that ressurection is not the norm, doesn’t fit the pattern and therefore didn’t happen (so mad for saying what he said and everyone after bad for perpetuating it?)
But with the best investigation of the evidence that I can do separated by 2000 and a language divide, I can only conclude that it did happen.
So if chaos is not really random but following the patterns of fractal mathematics, and patterns are self-replicating, and Jesus rose from the dead, then there’s hope. We’re promised that by Jesus paying the price for our sin, we’ll also be raised from the dead.
One further thought. If you look at church history, from church formation, pinning down and developing beliefs, schisming, debate and interpretation you have to accept that branching and complexity from simplicity can be seen even there – fractal patterns in an organisational structures context.
Finally, there’s a joke that tickles me…
In the future a scientist says to God, “we don’t need you. We can now create the spark of life, and create computers that evolve by themselves. We’re so confident that we challenge you to produce a new being, from scratch. If you’re really omnipotent, you’ll accept the challenge”
And God forms a being from the dust, a beautiful creature into which he breathes life, gives it a loving kiss on the forehead and lets it go off to live its life.
The scientist bends down and takes a handful of dust, but God shakes his head: “uhuh – you get your own dust”…